London late 1980s – summer, Clapham, booze. The idle life vs the indignity of labour. A film, a fight, and the life and death of a singer
It’s Sunday afternoon in London in the late 1980s and everything’s shut. The second weekend in August with south Clapham slow and humid under an electric sky. Nothing is happening. Not even the wallpaper. Imagine he is mid twenties, hungover and searching for food.
The night before he was at a party in north London and drank too much. The gathering was in a large Edwardian building on Haverstock Hill. His friend’s mate’s girlfriend’s wealthy parents bought her a first floor flat in lovely Belsize Park, with bays, tall windows, and pale stripped floorboards. (This was when no carpets was an interior statement.)
He went the party with his girlfriend and her pal from northern Italy, who was visiting London for the week. Everyone was drinking – cider, lager, wine, flumes of vodka tequila – except for the Italian friend, who didn’t enjoy booze.
They stayed late and the return journey home to south London required two night buses and took hours. Painfully long, protracted hours. On the first bus down to Trafalgar Square, several passengers were drunk, singing, slurring, shouting, toppling side to side, or comatose in a heap. The Italian friend looked on in wonder. The changeover in Trafalgar Square was intense. Below Nelson’s Column a zombie apocalypse played out as blasted drinkers staggered aimlessly, bumping into each other; subsiding and slumped on the paving; head down in the gutter; throwing up, snogging, or both – but not at the same time. It was getting on for 4am, and collapsed at the base of a bronze lion a young couple half way into an act of public obscenity were passed out through too much Special Brew.
There was a scuffle boarding the second night bus. They needed to sacrifice their dignity and press and barge and elbow to get some standing room. The concluding leg to Clapham South they spent crammed nose to nose with strangers as far as Stockwell. In the cotton wool of dawn they finally got back to his flat and crashed.
|drink loves a party|
The Italian friend spent her week in London fascinated by the natives and their alcohol. In Covent Garden, Camden and Notting Hill, in Chelsea, Richmond and Soho, she quietly pulled out her pro camera for a series of exposures of boozy crowds clutching pints or topping out on shorts – crowds that spilled across the pavements outside pubs and bars in the warm evening light. The Italian said there was nothing like this in Piedmont. The office workers, the shoppers, the circle of blokes dressed as crusaders on a stag, the bare chested football fans pumped at the start of the new season – the tankards, the pints, the tumblers, the tins, the bottles.
Not at the Barbican though (Just wine glasses). Not at St Pauls, Spitalfields, or Cloth Fair. And not in the sleepy idyllic churchyard at St Bartholomew the Great, where the concluding nuptials in Four Weddings and a Funeral would be filmed in years to come, the spot the Italian Friend took a photo of his girlfriend and him. He still has the picture in a drawer. His girlfriend is wearing his pale green jacket. He places his fingers behind her head as devil horns and she acts as if she doesn’t realise.
They go find a fry-up near Smithfield. The Italian Friend looks at his plate and says what are you eating? She takes a photo of his meal. Crammed inside a tight crop is two fried eggs bacon beans black pudding sausage mushrooms fried bread chips two slices of toast. In the near background is a can of Coke and a tea.
It’s the first time she’s curious about food in London. Eating out in Britain in the 1980s is still largely a challenge – the menu’s grey and unexciting, and appears fixed on being this way forever. In a divided cold-war Germany, the Berlin Wall has been up for twenty eight years and is set to keep standing for all time, surely. In Romania, Nicolae Ceaușescu is the toughest Easter Bloc despot, immovable after decades in charge. In five months’ time, the Berlin Wall will be gone and Ceaușescu is shot dead on Christmas Day in the planet’s first-ever televised revolution. In his novel Girlfriend in a Coma, when Douglas Coupland’s 90s heroine wakes following years unconscious in a hospital bed, friends fill her in on what she missed, Gorbachev, AIDS, the Simpsons: ‘And suddenly, in the early 1990s, food got interesting.’ Not yet though, not now, not in August 1989.
|the dictator goes under, live!|
They awoke post party just after mid-day. The Italian Friend says she fancies the fry-up he ate in Smithfield. He feels a near patriotic relief that at last the English kitchen offers something appealing. They walk down into Balham, but all the cafes and shops are shuttered. Tired and hungry, they turn round and march back up to Clapham. Past the Common – a yellow wasteland – onwards they trudge with receding hope down the length of the high street, which is also shut. She points to a pub advertising food – she’s that desperate. But the pub’s closing for the afternoon. Across the street there’s a wine bar serving saucers of olives and nuts to get around the Sunday licensing laws. But no eggs, no bacon, no beans, no fry up.
|All Our False Devices|
The Italian Friend flew home to Turin the following day. His girlfriend took the same flight, returning for the long autumn term teaching English to Italian engineers. His last flatmate moved out in July and he doesn’t have a replacement lined-up until December. The place is all his, two bedrooms, two double beds, plus the chunky mustard couch in the lounge for extra napping. So many sleep options and perhaps he wasn’t ready for this much choice. His first week solo he fell into sleeping on the floor in the lounge, tucked up close to the video and TV, his stereo and his vinyl – using a spare duvet for a mattress.
He’d never lived alone his whole life and was wide eyed at the prospect of being a party of one. Looking back, plainly the early weeks of his new reflexive, autarchic self – his imago high on absolute freedom – dragged to the surface some unresolved quirks. He not only slept nights on the carpet, he also built a den. Created out of sheets and blankets, the loose canopy was loosely strung from the backs of chairs, along the corner of the table and all the way across to the book shelves. On Thursday, he modified the den, adding a clothes dryer, seat cushions and pillows for walls, making it into a fort in which to shelter while watching films. Was his fort within the flat homely or unhomely – heimlich or the other?
|day-napping in the den|
On the third Sunday that August, he woke with thoughts of unruly sexual activity featuring the woman from the bakery down the road. The woman had hair the colour of the sun. She wore a stripy Terylene tunic that wrapped at the waist and pulled her body into a shape he often admired as she placed his loaf inside a paper bag.
On this quiet Sunday morning in August, the bakery woman was awake and dressing for church, while her husband made the tea in their small flat in Battersea, reflecting on the conversation he had last night with Maria, the landlady of the Admiral Drake, who is already downstairs in the murky saloon bar finishing last night’s clearing and preparing the Drake for the lunch shift while gazing fondly at the stool where Parsons sat early last evening.
Parsons is an architect who recently gave up smoking at the same time he purchased his first property. He bought a one bedroom flat in a small new build squeezed between a Victorian terrace and the railway line, just over the footbridge from the Drake. Parsons fleetingly thinks of Maria from the pub, who he considers to be friendly and amusing. But that’s the end of it. This is the only thought space he ever devotes to Maria, beyond occasionally, momentarily at the bar when ordering a re-fill.
Parson’s mind is already away, contemplating the current project at work. He is co-team leader for a new comprehensive school in Bow. The design looks like a yellow and purple packing case. The project is starting to drag and get political. This morning he watched the news about the disaster overnight. The Marchioness pleasure steamer sank on the River Thames. A huge dredger called the Bowbelle, crashed into the back of the Marchioness near Southwark Bridge. The anchor of the dredger cut through the pleasure boat’s upper deck and at least fifty people had died; mainly twentysomethings. All those young party goers dead. Parsons’ stomach churns. He imagines his mouth filling with tidal water; his throat and lungs swamped. But mention of Bow also returns Parson’s thoughts to tomorrow at work, and a new insight concerning the client’s objection to the eaves for the building’s front elevation.
The news suggests human error caused the disaster on the Thames. A team of pathologists arrive at a morgue in Rotherhithe to sift the human remains as his andante Sunday continues in his pillow fort in Clapham. He is glued to the TV with his toast and tea. The pleasure boat sank in the early hours – at one thirty. He was fast asleep on the floor of the lounge at one thirty while several people his age were wiped out in a moment. As the thought sinks deeper inside his mind, he gradually sees himself from outside and from above. Viewed from the ceiling rose, his regressive pillow structure – this ditzy heterotopia – looks laughable and off. The ramshackle construction he’d given his new reality was manifestly not suitable. He gets up and knocks the pillows down, returning them with the duvets to the main bedroom, saying that’s enough sleeping in the lounge.
He lacks his usual emotional padding this morning. He turns the TV off, though somehow this feels disrespectful. He puts on a record, Monk’s Lament, but takes it straight off again. He sits down to read a book, The Girls of Slender Means, but the words don’t keep his attention. He imagines the river and thinks about having a cigarette. He wonders how many are left in the packet by the fireplace. Possibly none. He feels de-energised. From the window, the mass of low cloud the colour of rodent tips his discomfort index into the red. He stands up to head out for a walk just as the doorbell rings.
Opening the kitchen window, sticking his head out, saying Yes? he finds Sleepy looking back up at him. For a second he’s confused to see his friend standing there. But then he forgets all the simmering mental bother and smiles.
Bah! Bah! Bah! Bah! Bah! Baaaaah!!!!!!!!
Sleepy scratches his chin, You gonna let me in?
He shakes his head. Nope. Bah! Don’t think so. Bah! Wasn’t expecting you.
We said, Sunday. It’s taken me two hours! Two and a half hours.
In which case…
He reverses back inside the kitchen, runs out the flat, and drops down the bare stairs to the front door.
You could’ve called, reminded me.
We don’t have a phone in Dalston.
Too exhausting. You forgot about me?
It slipped my mind we said today. Where IS my head?
Not where it should be.
Sleepy has travelled from Dalston by bus. Three buses. He insists the overall travel time was two and half hours. Plugged in, but not always to reality, Sleepy was never the leading most reliable witness. And yet, two and a half hours from Dalston to Clapham on a Sunday in the late nineteen eighties sounds reasonable. He tells Sleepy about a novel he read only recently where a young man spends all his Sunday morning waiting for a bus out of Docklands. He waits and waits and waits. And just waits.
Sleepy sits down. He looks bored already. The uninspired anecdote isn’t helping.
I like it when a book reflects back an experience you recognise from life. It reminded me of Money, when John Self is desperate to pee at the opera but can’t get his cummerbund off.
You often have trouble with your cummerbund at the opera?
Do you think thirty years from now people will still be talking about Martin Amis?
Sleepy shrugs with his built-in take-it-or-leave-it tone.
He shifts forward. Yeah. Obviously.
Yes, I think so. But not Madonna. That I’m sure of.
Sleepy says, What shall we do today?
Every Sunday is like Sunday.
He makes Sleepy a tea as a placeholder. Waiting by the kettle, he looks at the listings poster for the Ritzy hanging half off the wall. They’re showing a Rohmer double bill today. He perks up.
Sleepy groans. Please no, Éric Rohmer’s films are all the same.
They are not samey, that’s his weltanschauung. His worldview.
I understand weltanschauung.
I admire his consistency. And what else is there anyway? They couldn’t simply futz about in this hot flat, brooding, bickering, leaking inner speech and brain fibs. We could go for a walk?
Two men strolling in the park, says Sleepy. On a Sunday. We’ll go see Rohmer.
Let’s walk it to Brixton.
A plan of action has been decided upon. As a result, the expectation is the two young men depart. Instead they continue to sit and something ostensibly akin to nothing occurs (Niksen) as they look vacantly at the carpet and smoke and talk in batches. And then there’s a knock on the door. This is unusual. He wonders if it’s Kenya from downstairs, the yoga instructor. Or her boyfriend Ash, who’s a cricket nut. If it’s Ash, the risk is a long spell discussing Gavaskar with Sleepy, and kiss goodbye to Rohmer.
It’s not Asha or Kenya. It’s a handsome slender man with dark blonde hair and freckles who says that he’s the Decorator. He reports that he’s starting work on the flat tomorrow. He know it’s Sunday, he says bashfully, but the landlord asked him to come and have an advance word.
The Decorator is forty plus and his face feels vaguely familiar. He has an American accent and is wearing a green army cap. He stares at the Decorator for too long. The Decorator smiles lightly, as if this level of attention is not unexpected. He apologises again for arriving unannounced.
Can I enter, please? Just to look the place over.
The Decorator seems pretty cool and it would not be cool back to quibble. So he lets him pass through the doorway into the small landing, and leads the way up the short flight of back stairs to the bathroom and the rear bedroom.
In the bathroom they discuss the damp patch and the draughty windows. The Decorator says the sash frames are loose. If I jerk the handle, he says. If I jerk the handle, the window rocks in the frame. I can fill the cracks, he says, but can’t change the wood that’s not good.
He thinks, wait till you get to the floorboards.
In the main bedroom, with its temporary mountain of duvets and pillows, the Decorator stops at the picture of Montgomery Clift at Paestum and nods. He says the ceiling mouldings appear in good nick.
|Montgomery Clift, Honey|
From there to the kitchen, where the Decorator strokes the woodchip wallpaper and tuts. He stops by the gas cooker and with his feet planted wide apart, he takes the edges of the cooker in both hands and braces momentarily as if about to lift up in the air – like the world’s strongest man.* He is lean and sinewy and has Popeye muscles. Strain after strain, after strain, after strain, he mutters, and laughs, leaving the cooker as found.**
The flat has been neglected for a long time now – going years without basic maintenance. He is a sitting tenant at odds with the landlord over his residency with (Legal Aid) lawyers involved. (The landlord manages several properties in Clapham for a group of Asian investors from Johannesburg, funnelling money out of apartheid South Africa.) The floorboards have become a known danger in recent times. After Ash put his foot through a rotten plank downstairs, wrenching his ankle, it was agreed that something had to be done to head off greater injury – as well as any more lawyers.
The Decorator meets Sleepy, passerine in the lounge. He introduces his friend who casually raises an arm, and then an eyebrow. He asks Sleepy to shift his feet and then steps carefully around the room indicating the boards which are the creakiest and scariest. He says, that floorboard cracks like this one. And this one cracks like those over there. And those over there crack like these two. And that one cracks like these do. And these do just like this over here.
Said in such a style, the tour of the rickety floorboards sounds poetic. The Decorator listens carefully with a far-off face. A different section of his brain is working something out as he starts to hum. The Decorator crosses to the window to stare and despair at more loose sash fittings. He considers the ceiling and the skirting boards, that are quite yellow but supposed to be white. His focus is distracted by the LPs on the carpet stacked close to the stereo. At the front of the largest pile of vinyl is a Julian Cope LP, Peggy Suicide. The Decorator gets down on one knee. Quite un-selfconscious momentarily, he gazes at the Cope cover imagery and cocks his head.
Julian lives around here, he tells the Decorator.
No, really, Julian?
The Late Show had a piece on him. They filmed him cycling round Brixton. He writes songs riding on his bike.****
He nods as if a point has been proved. The Deocorator turns away from the Cope LPs and sighs. He tells him he’ll start tomorrow and is there a spare key? He warns that he will have to pull up the carpet and replace the worst of the floorboards. He will paint the lounge, bathroom and kitchen. But not the two bedrooms. He apologises again for ‘busting in on them on a Sunday’ and departs.
Sleepy says, nice guy.
Really nice guy. My Decorator is cool.
Actually quite glamorous.
I have a charismatic Decorator. How old d’you think?
Sleepy opens his mouth but doesn’t get to answer as there’s another ring on the doorbell. For a Sunday things are extremely lively in south Clapham. Out the top window he pops once more. The Decorator is exiting the frame to the right on an old road bike, while on the doorstep Flymo is gazing up, shielding his eyes, goth rings glinting in a burst of sun.
Bah. Where’s my tenner?
Bah, Bah, Bah!
Sure Bah. My ten pounds?
Flymo has sore eyes and a low mouth and slops inside the lounge claiming he’s bored. Or perhaps he doesn’t say this, as bored isn’t part of Flymo’s self-image – maybe he just looks that way. Flymo is heading home the long way from a party last night in Balham and wants company for his breakfast out. He doesn’t want just tea and cornflakes, he tells them, he wants a full size feed. He says he’ll give him his tenner if he comes to the cafe. He leads the way down to Acre Lane to a great place he knows. He says it’s named after a painter.
I don’t remember. It’s not important.
Cafe Goya is half way between the old piano factory and the new Tesco and is run by two middle-aged men with beards. The three twentysomethings eat a full meal while Flymo and Sleepy reminisce about last year’s Car Incident. The Car Incident was the time Sleepy fell out of Flymo’s car on a previous visit to the flat in south Clapham. Sleepy came tumbling out the passenger door as Flymo made a sharp right. They had just set off and were only going twenty miles an hour and although Sleepy didn’t get a single graze, he said his parents still thinks he should sue Flymo. This is the first time Flymo’s heard about getting sued. He doesn’t look bored any more, he looks nervous. He says Sleepy should learn to belt-up. Sleepy says the passenger door was faulty. Flymo tells him it’s too late either way, I sold the car. He says what we doing after lunch. We’re going to the cinema. Okay, mutters Flymo, forgetting to ask what film.
|show them life|
Back out on the street after Goya and the tropical air is even closer, so humid it has texture. Day after day through the late summer of 1989 the atmospheric dial got stuck on sultry and dense. When the discomfort index remains in the red three days on the trot, when the air pressure weighs heavily on the brain, the barometrics will cause grown men to behave like toddlers. Past the next junction, at the pelican crossing before the timber merchants, a car slams on its brakes when a large man turns into the road suddenly. The driver hits the horn and shouts, Fucker! The pedestrian shouts Fucker! back, also giving the angry driver the finger. The finger is the proverbial straw and with it the driver explodes out of his vehicle into the street.
The driver is as big as the pedestrian. He fast-forwards towards the Finger. And the Finger does the same back. Suddenly we have two large angry males ready to work off some man fat. There’s no cursing, no squaring up as preliminaries, no, You want some? They don’t utter a single word, but go straight to punches – wild haymakers sent flying through the static, hooks swinging but barely landing – before getting in tight as they start to wrestle. And soon they wrestle their combined heft into a tumble as the two big men go over in a tangle. They hit the ground with a hard thump. Ouch. A beast with two heads, they grapple and roll across the tarmac, onto the pavement, then back onto the tarmac. Cars pull up and drivers join pedestrians in watching the show.
It’s unclear who is winning and who is losing. As they grapple n roll, high above them the clouds part and down comes a huge ray of sunlight. In his mind’s eye the two brawling men flooded with celestial sunbeams suddenly stop as they become suspended in their violent embrace – frozen in time, captured and enclosed within a photographic moment. This strikingly lit action image from the 1980s is so vivid and present in his head as he writes this, that he could almost send to print, to frame and hang the long-gone moment, have it on display in his flat after all these years – over his toilet perhaps. Because that’s alright for some who can hang the absurd on their wall.*****
The wrestling contest ends shortly – stopping as abruptly as it began. The sound of police sirens, perhaps, and tropical inertia. The fighters silently release. It’s a draw. They stand up and turn away. The driver gets back in his car. Bystanders shuffle off. An older West Indian man steps out of the frame of onlookers, dressed in a suit and a hat, dapper despite the heavy weather, smiling at the explosion of testosterone on the Lord’s day – ‘Mad Cow’s disease’ he chuckles, and disappears.
Flymo, Sleepy and he continue along grumpy Acre Lane. Flymo pulls in at a phone box to call up a Brixton friend at a loose end. The friend meets them outside the Ritzy with a buddy also not doing much. Now they are five. They all know each other from football on Wednesday nights – well, not Sleepy, he’s cricket. They play on the Common all summer; until it’s too dark you can’t see the ball and they go for drinks at The Windmill. But today they are sat in the Ritzy cinema, passive in a line of five for Éric Rohmer’s The Green Ray (Le Rayon Vert).
|green ray says I love you|
The Green Ray is the super chatty tale of a procrastinate young French woman’s confusion about what to do with her summer now she’s split with her boyfriend. It’s not exactly Terminator. Rohmer is a light-touch, small-detail auteur curious about his loquacious protagonists’ intellectual response to experience. The film writer Judith Williamson was a cult critic through the eighties who was not easily pleased. Judith loved The Green Ray. ‘What Rohmer does, in essence, is precisely to give space to this elusive life of the heart,’ she wrote on the film’s general release. ‘Expanding the arena for those subtle and important personal choices which most of the time, for most of us, are squeezed below the surface made up of work and more conscious or pressing demands.’****
Deploying a calm classical camerawork and the contrivances of misunderstanding, Le Rayon Vert captures bubbles. At the end of movie, however, it is collectively agreed they’ve had enough bubbles. By a vote of four to one, it is decided that they will not stick around for the second serving of double Rohmer. If only he could’ve mustered the insight of Williamson, to find the words to persuade his friends to remain in their seats for Pauline at the Beach. He says arguably Pauline is a livelier work. But they’re not having it. All four of them declare Rohmer’s films meek and boring.******
They wander out the Ritzy into the sparkling aftermath of a rain storm. The air has cleared out and thermometer has dived. They’re open, says one of the group. And he says it again. They’re open, nodding towards the Prince Albert across the road. Many years from now, this man will write a book about the pubs of south London.
Seven PM on a Sunday in 1989 and the pubs are waking up from their legally required afternoon snooze. The five of them cross over to the Albert for just the one. One drink then home.
They have six pints in three hours and then a curry and he doesn’t get fat. After the curry, he walks back on his own. It’s getting late and although not all of the people in the city’s southlands are good folk, he doesn’t feel scared. He’s tall and half cut usually sees things differently. He gazes at the roofs of the buildings opposite scrolling past and sees woodlands and treetops, and considers the city to be a forest that tells no tales. He turns left into Abbeville Road and the walk is much quieter, with less traffic and fewer pedestrians, all the way to the parade of shops.
The corner grocery store, which keeps strange hours, is still open after ten on a Sunday. He buys bread and Loseley ice cream and chicken loaf. A man behind him in the queue asks for grated cheese. He looks round and it’s Jeremy Hardy the comedian. And behind Hardy is the leftie writer John Pilger, who he saw in the off licence only last week.
In the morning he rises late. He eats cereal, reading Ceefax off the TV, feeling the usual acedia as he enthusiastically fills his gutty wutty. Later, he calls a friend and they speak for an hour and then he washes his bowl and coffee mug and looks out from the kitchen window, wondering what happened to the Decorator.
Across the street a bricklayer in orange overalls is building a garden wall. The wall is up to the builder’s knee. (He thinks one day he might like to work with his hands.) The builder becomes lodged in his memory. He will forget so much, but for no clear reason will always remember the bricklayer in orange.
He goes out the flat to buy some milk. The parade of shops includes a bakery, two butchers, a corner store, a wine bar, a pizza restaurant, a bookies, two hairdressers, a post office, a card shop, a newsagents, a greengrocer, one DVD shop… He gets more bread from the woman in the bakery. The pavement outside the bakery is wide and two men go past talking. The Chinese woman eats soup, says one man to the other. He goes into the video store and rents Trouble in Mind, which he’s already seen at the cinema. He thinks for now that Alan Rudolph is a remarkable film-maker who is on to something special that is yet to be fully revealed. He’s excited about seeing the film again this afternoon. These were the palmiest days of his life. When God loved him and before time fell out of joint.
He’s not working at the moment. Not working, working. He reads manuscripts freelance for a publisher for whom he compiles editorial reports. He also writes book reviews. He continues to sign on and as a result has quite a decent living. Last winter he worked briefly as a cinema usher. It was supposed to be a dream job come true. But after two long shifts watching Home Alone 2 on repeat, sweeping up popcorn between screenings, he realised that he was bored, underpaid, and happy to quit.
He closes the curtains and pops the video cassette into the machine. He wonders if he should be doing something else with the day. He knows his attitude to work might need to change (Well, maybe) and blamed his drift and indolence on this generation’s extended youth. But also on an unfortunate experience during his last year as a teenager.
Through A Levels he had almost developed a work habit and then first year of college his diligence dipped only to receive a major blow the summer he turned nineteen. It was mid June and the start of the long vacation when he landed yet another dream job, this time working in a fancy record shop in north Soho. He walked into the job right off the train back from his first year at college, and walked back out thirty minutes later with an agreement to start on Monday. Cool.
But actually not so cool. After several hot days in a dark room at the back of the shop relentlessly shrink-wrapping LPs, the dream job didn’t feel the least bit fancy. Shovelling the shrink-wrapped LPs into the display racks on the shop floor at high speed, lugging small towers of vinyl up and down the aisles, alphabetising while buckling under the strain, was actually the complete opposite of the paid and golden summer doss he’d intended – more like industrial labour in fact.
The start of his second week, the store manager had a word. The manager bought him a Coke and took him to his office. He said, You don’t look happy. He said this with those intense dark brown eyes he used so well – these Manson lamps looking into your soul. You really don’t smile a lot, do you? said the manager. Back room. Shop floor. You look grim. Are you not happy in your work?
Are you not happy in your work?
He looked straight back at the manager, unsure of what to say about his current levels of personal happiness. During this rare instance of speechlessness, when both the words and the thoughts jammed like broken machinery, he simply blinked with involuntary astonishment.
Not happy? Why would he be happy? He’d been working his pale thin body to the bone. The manager genuinely believes that he should smile, laugh, giggle hysterically perhaps at the experience of dull repetitive slaving? What was that all about? Wasn’t him doing the job efficiently enough, already? They also had to own his bleeding soul?
He blinked with confusion. He knew he didn’t owe them a smile. But he liked the money. And so, in the spirit of fostering amicable, sustainable industrial relations, he told the manager he guess he could try to look happy. I could even pretend to smile. He gave him a cracked smiley physog as a preview. The manager grimaced. No, don’t do that.
You finished your drink?
He hadn’t, but he said Yes.
Fine. Back to work now. At least try not to look sad.
|labour three times|
He returned to the workroom to resume at the coal face hot-sealing yet more Dire Straits LPs in tight cellophane bags – now also attempting to not look grim at the indignity of labour. In this way, he got into the groove with the shop’s vibe. A week later he was redeployed from the infernal shrink-wrapper to front of the store – where you could choose which records to play. It was the summer of The Message and Rockers Revenge. He rang up sales alongside older colleagues with interesting hair talking about music between sales. He started to smile, but the overall experience left a bad taste.
He knew for real that his face – from smile to frown, the whole faceology – belonged to him only, and not to Virgin Records. They leased his labour, they didn’t own his countenance. Thereafter, no matter the jobs he landed, some of them cushy – several pretty, pretty good – he treated employment warily, as an exploitative, inherently soul-oppressing gig. Whatever he got paid, his effort was almost certainly purchased for less than the value it created. The Boss was the Man the Vampire sucking on his life juice, when all he wanted to do with his earthly ration of years was make something beautiful.
Not all of these objections simply reflected a callow unacknowledged entitlement. (In other words, he did have point.) What do you do, he speculated now and then in the idle hours – in the bath in south Clapham, perhaps, his knees sticking out the water lonely and chilly – what are your options if society asserts that your ‘career’ is synonymous with who you are in the world? The deal was surely rigged – wherein you are expected to sell your life to serve an economy that does not serve your life. Awake to the con, he wondered if he was alone, or could there be millions similarly wised-up?
By the summer of 1989 he’d figured out that life wasn’t matching his dreams, but it would do all the same. He’d learned enough by now to understand he was responsible for the task of self-making, and also for signing-on every second Tuesday. In no particular hurry to be arriving anywhere soon, he believed in individual freedom and not working to set hours. Yet to see himself through other people’s eyes, he drifted in and out of touch with his own subjectivity, while continuing to doubt the need for a totalising system to contain his thoughts. He understood that he had a scatty way of being while enjoying giving the illusion to others that he was really actually on top of things. (He wasn’t.) He appreciated during this period a short poem by Brecht:
Wandering this way and that/ Kept no note of my hither and thither/ Don’t know where I left my hat/ Nor the previous seven either.
As Monday afternoon in south Clapham wanes, as Trouble in Mind concludes on a romantic swing, as Kris Kristofferson leaves Rain City in his retro convertible, while Marianne Faithful growls her parting rendition with the film credits rising onscreen, he looks through his first floor window, out at a sky which has started to darken, rain approaching, and realises he is hungry – again.
He returns the video to the rental shop and buys dinner from the corner store. On the way home, the rain not yet arrived overhead, he finds Ashley from downstairs sitting on the wall outside the house.
Ash says, Howdy (He really does, Ash always says Howdy) and asks, Does he know when the decorator’s starting?
He told me yesterday he was starting today. But he never turned up. Have you met?
Ash says the Decorator had already been round twice. He’s cool.
Yeah. I feel I know him. It’s a bit uncanny.
Ash, a handsome primary school teacher who never seemed fussed, shakes his head. To him there is nothing uncanny about the Decorator. Just an erratic time keeper in an army hat. But I’m not stressed.
A plane flies over head. They both look at the sky and then at each other with nothing further to say. He gestures with his bag, as if the contents need attention, and rolls forward onto his toes preparing to head inside, as suddenly the sound of new age music wafts out the front window of Ashely’s flat.
Ash smiles. He says Kenya’s making a sound tape.
I thought Kenya was a yoga teacher.
He nods. Yeah, she also makes recordings.
She’s a musician?
Ash shakes his head. Nah, mate, that’s just her theme tune. The sound tapes are not music, he says, but recordings she makes of specific activities.
What d’you mean?
Ash says Kenya records certain tasks she performs, distinctive, repetitive, reassuring tasks, he says, like ironing shirts, wrapping presents, or walking up and down the room in heels. Ash has a reddish scar across the bridge of his nose and inside his trouser turn-ups are bits of fluff. He says Kenya whispers into the cassette recorder detailed descriptions of folding towels telling her listeners how relaxed she’s feeling. She sends copies of these recordings to a list of customers – round Britain, but also overseas. Ash shrugs.There are people who enjoy that kind of thing. Makes them dreamy, helps with sleeping, apparently. He smiles. I mean I love the sound of a cricket ball being middled. That thwack… You know what I mean?
Sure. I like that too.
So, I guess I understand… Ash looks down at the ground bashfully. I have to come outside when she’s recording.
Yes, of course. Well, hopefully it won’t rain.
Almost everything Ash just said seems not real. But it has to be true as Ash isn’t the kind to make stuff up. He wants to ask more questions and have it all explained a second time, to be walked through the concept slowly. But rarely in his twenties did he ask questions – wishing to seem like he knew everything already, but also keen to figure stuff out for himself. In this instance he fails.
|Decorator in a bush|
The following day, at 8am, the Decorator arrives to start work. He comes to the house on his bike, somehow balancing a step ladder, a tall rucksack, along with two cycle panniers containing tools, brushes, sandpaper, turpentine, spirit level, and lunch. He apologises for Monday, saying he was knocked off his bicycle. He points to grazes on his chin and right elbow.
It is a bright morning and the Decorator is wearing shades along with the same solider’s hat. The soldier’s hat will be a permanent feature for the next few weeks, while he replaces or re-fixes floorboards, sands and fills, papers and paints. The Decorator is friendly and handsome and has an actually beautiful rich voice, which along with his soft American accent and dark blonde looks gives him an aura – a glow from within. The Decorator rings a bell, a half thought maybe he could’ve followed.
|won’t it be fine|
In the last years of the 1960s, the British-based American pop idol Scott Walker broke away from his teenybopper career as lead singer with The Walker Brothers. Leaving Walkermania and four-beat hits behind, Walker released a quartet of solo LPs: Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3 and Scott 4. The Scott LPs were not so much a striking departure from The Walker Brothers, but an advance towards a new sensibility, something that was still pop, but arty and European. Scott 1 to 4 combined cover versions – particularly the songs of Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel – Jackie, Next, The Girls and the The Boys, stories of sex, madness and death – mixed in with a number of original compositions by Walker himself – Montague Terrace (in Blue), The Angels of Ashes, and Hero of the War. The Scott LPs quoted not only romance, but politics, war, Bergman, the lush movie soundtracks of French composer Michel Legrand, sex, alienation and, of course, death. This is not the light programme.
|30 century angst|
Scott sold handsomely, topping the charts. Scott 2 and Scott 3 also performed well. But Scott 4, released late 1969, and arguably the finest of the quartet, did very, very badly. Pop pickers were not in the mood for The Seventh Seal or The Old Man’s Back Again (Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime) as Scott 4 blatantly died.
Through the early 1970s, Scott Walker continued to sing and record and also drink lots, lost in a haze of MOR and self-loathing. The commercial and critical highs felt long gone as Walker’s career and corpus fizzled.
|I took nobody with me, Not a soul|
In 1980, Scott collected himself to go again. First, he signed to Virgin Records, agreeing a preposterously exacting contract requiring him to deliver two dozen LPs, enough to take him deep into the next century. By now Walker was not a fast artist. His first release arrived in 1984. Climate of Hunter was a challenging suite of modernist songs – mostly tracks without titles. A giant step beyond his previous pop miniatures, Hunter was critically appreciated but commercially it reeked. (It was at the time the worst selling album in the history of Virgin.)
Walker was by now a cult artist with a low income needing to scrabble to make a living. You do what you gotta do. At this time, he made a brief appearance in a soft drink commercial in the role of a bohemian baritone in shades. He also stopped recording and went back to college to study fine art, taking on work cash-in-hand – as a decorator.
By now Walker was arguably pop’s ‘most engimatic figure’ (The Late Show, 1995). The tea-time crooner transformed into avant garde mystery with a habit of disappearing. Occasionally the mainstream remembered this fascinating lost object and wondered where he’d gone. (The Sunday People once launched a nationwide search for the missing Scott Walker.)
During these hard times of penury, Walker’s cultural capital increased as his scarcity created a renewed demand. The late 60s Scott albums were re-released alongside compilations such as Fire Escape in the Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker (1981, curated by (Saint) Julian Cope) and Boy Child: The Best of Scott Walker 1967-70 (1990).
In 1993 Walker signed a new record deal, and two years later released Tilt. His first album in over a decade,Tilt marks Walker’s conclusive departure from three-minute pop, as he journeys onwards, via classical, jazz and film, into a disquieting aural landscape made out of ‘blocks of sound’. Quite hefty blocks of sound, raw and stark – ‘A big emotional noise,’ he called it. In sections, Tilt sounds harsh, industrial, loud, broken, but also orchestral and melodic, featuring beautiful compositions steeped in angst and a yearning for a deeper understanding.
|he was so strong, he was so bold|
Walker’s voice sounds older. Not so much stripped, as strained, pop’s warmest baritone has transformed into the haunted instrument of a singer channelling nightmares. The lyrical concerns of Tilt probes assorted dark matters – war, murder, torture, dictators, illustrious corpses, layer upon layer of bad vibes, with little romance and no (obvious) jokes. With Tilt, Walker irreversibly crosses the border, departing the old country – ‘No one is going home anymore’ observes Eimear McBride; ‘Imagine Andy Williams reinventing himself as Stockhausen,’ writes the Guardian. The LP was part one in a strung-out trio of works that amount to an enquiry into what comes after songs, a dissonant disturbed late style of ruins and voids.
Walker’s career as a Decorator was over, but the brushes weren’t binned. In a Guardian interview of 2012 at the peak of his genius renown, Walker mentions painting a friend’s house. The singer also continued with the army cap and riding his bike around London – despite accidents and a chipped front tooth. In the last decade of his life, he was largely culturally adored, occasionally giving cheerful, insightful interviews with the press, radio and TV, and even at the cinema – a tortured singer, but a seemingly contented man, as much at ease discussing his early pop life as the complex, anguished end works.
|Jesse, are you listening?|
During the time the Decorator painted his south Clapham flat, they rarely spoke, and this he regrets as he believes it might have been different, different if only he’d asked a few obvious questions, maybe listened closer to his spider sense concerning the puzzling aura hovering over this dreamy man in the solider’s hat. He realises now that The Decorator wasn’t hiding, just not advertising his story. As the dust sheets arrived and went over the furniture, draped across the TV, CD and record player, over the piles of vinyl, possibly the Decorator noticed the Scott Walker LPs in the collection, or maybe not.
Because of his dispute with the landlord over the status of his tenancy. Because the landlord considered his occupancy half way to squatting, the Decorator’s job list for his first floor flat was less extensive than with the flat downstairs, all the work being completed in a fortnight.
For the two weeks, the Decorator took over the place during the working day. And although he was quiet and didn’t listen to Radio One, it was impossible to be on-site reading manuscripts, proofs, or watching videos. He had to take off each morning and devised a new routine reading in the library near Clapham Old Town – the one at the top of the road where Angela Carter lived, past the house where Graham Greene wrote The End of an Affair. After lunch, he would leave the library and head for the gym on Manor Street, or to the Ritzy, for another matinee, as the summer ended early and abruptly with cold winds and buckets of rain.
He moved from south Clapham in the mid 1990s and went back to the flat just the one time, to collect a suitcase of photos and letters he’d stashed at the back of the airing cupboard and almost lost for good.
He wonders what kind of experience of life Scott Walker had in total, how much his identity changed from year to year. The week Walker died, he felt sad and regretful, disappointed he hadn’t listened to more of Walker’s work and more often with a closer ear. (He’s no completist/completionist.) The press obituaries highlighted the singer’s varied biography: the child actor; the prentice crooner on Sunset Strip; an emigre pop idol in chilly nineteen sixties Britain; Scott as swinging bachelor at large, who first met Brel during a fling with a Playboy bunny with Pernod stashed under the bed – his whole world all shook up by the sound of chanson steeped in decadence. The auteur of personal doubt, in shades; the out-of-favour godlike genius painting ceilings and skirting boards; the burgeoning cult of the reclusive master; the acclaimed difficult late works completing his ascent of the peak of alpha brilliance. Was Walker as absorbed by the floorboards as the blocks of sound, did he find happiness in absorption, or not?
Happiness is a enigmatic something not easily confirmed or entrenched. On the Essex Borders, it’s over a week since Walker passed. He repeat listens to Patriot (A Single). He hears the song differently, he feels he does. The drunk vocals over a beaten kettle drum. The distant fragments of percussion at the back of the mix with vast open spaces awaiting melodic bass or a rush of strings to rise. The recurring drama of Walker’s silver baritone starts to rise one last time for the song’s concluding stanza: Up this back road/ Swirling butterflies, Swirling flecks. The voice lifts for a final chorus. Or at least we expect it does. And it will be so nice, one last refrain. But the end chorus never arrives, the song abruptly fades, exits without climax – always a shock.*********
Last night was Saturday and they had dinner with her oldest friend who was celebrating his birthday. This morning in bed, Gala said her father knew Scott Walker. They worked together in the seventies. She says Walker used to come to their house and she remembers seeing his lyrics, handwritten lines left out on her dad’s piano. She says she hates Sunday. Have another tea before you go.
In the evening, in south London, The Annoying Son talks about his week and he listens while he cooks the pasta. He always cooks pasta. The Annoying Son groans.
You like pasta.
I hate Sundays.
Well, Sunday is almost over.
Yeah, and then it’s Monday.
The past closes in on itself and dies. Although dead, the long gone continues to work away inside us – like a ghost, or a virus. ‘That which acts without (physically) existing’ writes Mark Fisher – something that lingers but cannot reproduce itself.
In 2005, the old house in south Clapham was sold to a new owner who returned the property to its original state as a large family home. They ripped out the stud walls from the ground floor, opening up a large downstairs space with exposed brick, slate floors, and luxury white work surfaces for a high end minimalist kitchen. (In the space where Kenya made her sound tapes.)
The refurb took eight months. The first few days of the project, they removed the old fixtures and fittings and tossed them into a skip. The ancient cooker in the first floor galley kitchen came away from the wall reluctantly, fringed with decades of grease, furballs and dreck. In the wall space behind the cooker, the white paint faded into a circle of pale blue emulsion, and from inside the blue were torn faded remnants of an older layer dating from the sixties of strips of orange modular wallpaper. Scrawled across the orange patterns, in thick red strokes was a message from history, from the last Decorator to venture behind the cooker: ‘Noel Scott Engel was here, Nickling and Dimeing, 1989.’ **********
The two builders saw the Noel Scott Engel inscription and it barely registered. They didn’t understand. Neither of them realised it was Scott Walker and why should they? And because of this, no one took a photo. And so it’s almost as if it never happened.
|and here I should like to remain|
End Note: Not all the dates in this account match with historical record, with some bending of the literal truth having occurred in the making.
* The World’s Strongest Man, Scott 4 (1969), Scott Walker
** Cue, The Drift (2006), Scott Walker
*** The Cockfighter, Tilt (1995), Scott Walker
**** The Late Show profile of Julian Cope of 1991 contains footage of Tamworth’s greatest maverick sweeping through south London on a red bicycle. Down Brixton Hill he flies – hat, shades, pollution mask – chewing up the miles all the way to the river. As each morning he descended into Brixton, Cope took a short cut, passed along the street where German singer Nico lived with punk poet John Cooper Clarke, both heroin addicts at the time.
***** The Angels of Ashes, Scott 4 (1969), Scott Walker
****** Judith Williamson (Deadline at Dawn: Film Criticism 1980-1990, Marion Boyars, London, 1993, p. 180)
******* On Éric Rohmer and his cinematic universe. He was told repeatedly through the 1980s and into the 90s – a chorus of disapproval – that the Frenchman’s films were no good and boring. But always he rejected the suggestion. He loved Rohmer and knew that he always would.
And then a few years later, it happened. One afternoon alone at the Ritzy at a screening of Rohmer’s latest release – another gossamer tale of boyfriends and girlfriends and romantic mishaps in Paris – gradually, then suddenly, he found he was bored. He stayed for the rest of the movie but thereafter stopped watching Rohmer and hasn’t been back since. Lately this long-range break feels over-extended with a status review well overdue. He suspects that he could love Rohmer again. Life sometimes can be ridiculous.
******** Bouncer See Bouncer, Tilt (1995), Scott Walker
********* Patriot (A Single) Up this back road/Swirling butterflies, Swirling flecks. He listens to the words, he reads them on the CD inlay. But, please, what do they mean? Walker said the lyrics came first and that he didn’t really understand them himself.
|Scott Walker, Composer, Decorator, Beautiful Voice|